Handsome, athletic and tressed to thrill, this carefree man from Grenoble appeared destined for F1 greatness when he grabbed the lead of the 1968 Monaco GP. Replacing the injured Jackie Stewart in Ken Tyrrell’s Matra MS10, a bravura qualifying performance had put him on the outside of the front row for his first race in an F1 car. And now he was pulling away from no less than Graham Hill.
This was, however, to be a starburst moment. He clipped a barrier on lap three and broke a driveshaft, though there would be other keynote Matra successes for him: a battling second in that year’s Monza GP slipstreamer, the 1969 European F2 title, and the only point for a four-wheel-drive F1 car (sixth at Mosport in ’69).
Not that Johnny seemed to mind. After his sudden retirement in 1970 – following his failure to qualify a Tyrrell-run March 701 at Monaco – he opined that this would allow him more time for his women.
The official reason for his decision was an eye injury. Chances are, however, that for a man to whom most things came remarkably easily and brilliantly, F1 suddenly seemed too much like hard work.
Johnny – real name Georges-François – was a throwback who marched to the beat of his own drum. The cover of his autobiography, My Excesses of Speed, features a horse-drawn caravan. His other preferred transport for his post-race gipsy lifestyle was a sailboat. Quick – and cool.